Although a few months ago it appeared as if it would close for good, Sag Harbor yoga studio Yoga Shanti recently reopened its doors on Memorial Day weekend. The studio was founded by renowned yoga instructor Colleen Saidman Yee nearly 23 years ago and has remained a Sag Harbor staple and hub for yoga lovers ever since. The studio is known for its staff of distinguished “yogis,” who, they say, are able to teach anyone, from beginners to yoga experts, in a safe and uplifting environment.
Ms. Saidman Yee’s husband and Yoga Shanti teacher Rodney Yee vividly remembers the day the studio was forced to shut down during the pandemic.
“We all remember the day, Colleen was teaching, and I was crying,” Mr. Yee said. “All of a sudden, it was like the iron curtain came down, and we were done.”
Ms. Saidman Yee was forced to close her studio in Tribeca because it was impossible to maintain it during the pandemic while keeping up with New York City rent. Grappling with having to close her Sag Harbor studio was even more difficult for Ms. Saidman Yee, because of the bond she and her husband had built with the local community.
“When we first started 22 years ago, it was a lot of people from New York, and the weekends were really busy and midweek was quiet, but that has completely changed,” she said. “We’ve been here for so long and we’ve developed such a wonderful bond with the local community.”
Mr. Yee said that Yoga Shanti has served the community for so long that it is often equated with the Sag Harbor Cinema as being a quintessential part of the Sag Harbor community.
While Ms. Saidman Yee originally thought Yoga Shanti would reopen on Memorial Day 2020, she quickly realized that the studio would have to be closed for much longer than she had imagined. She contemplated closing down the studio for good simply because of the sheer uncertainty of the future. She was unsure how many people would be allowed in the studio once restrictions eased, when classes would resume, and if people would be receptive to having to wear a mask while doing yoga.
Over the summer, when the indoor studio was closed, Ms. Saidman Yee led daily morning classes in Mashashimuet Park in Sag Harbor. “To get to work with the local community again after being closed for so long was incredible, it was magical,” she said, adding that by practicing outdoors, she was even able to become intimate with “goose poop.”
When the weather got cold again, Yoga Shanti began holding virtual classes, in which people could tune in live from the comfort of their own home.
“On the virtual sessions, we would have people from Africa, Australia, and Europe. We’ve traveled our whole lives teaching, so it was nice to be able to affect that audience, too, using virtual sessions,” Ms. Saidman Yee said.
Though the pandemic was certainly tough for the business, she said that it may have been a blessing in disguise for the practice of yoga as a whole. She explained that people who hadn’t necessarily ever been exposed to yoga might have turned to the practice to relieve feelings of isolation and stress. She said people also began practicing yoga during the pandemic because it is so easy to do online; in the comfort of their own home, the embarrassment of not being able to do a certain pose, or not being flexible, disappears.
“A lot of people definitely started their practice over the pandemic because we are seeing a lot of new faces that we don’t recognize in class,” she said.
Over the course of the pandemic, Yoga Shanti continued to serve the local community by working with first responders.
“Yoga Shanti created calming sequences for hospitals, first responders, and also for addiction houses during the pandemic,” Mr. Yee said. “We reached out strongly, and nurses and doctors who were experiencing PTSD would reach out to us.”
While the pandemic certainly brought about a new set of challenges for Yoga Shanti, the strong local community that Ms. Saidman Yee has built is ultimately what prompted her to reopen the studio. “I wasn’t going to reopen, and then I would run into people on the street and they would say, ‘That’s a vital part of Sag Harbor, you can’t not open.’ We would run into people, or people would call and say that not opening is not an option.”
The studio reopened on Memorial Day weekend, though it looks slightly different than it did pre-COVID. While the studio usually holds up to 75 people, it currently fits only 29 people to allow for social distancing. Mats are spaced out evenly across the floor, a new air filtration system is in place, and a unique cubby system is being used to avoid the usual lingering once a class is over. Yoga Shanti is also holding outdoor classes outside The Church in Sag Harbor on Saturday and Sunday mornings for those reluctant to reenter the indoor studio.
“We’ve done about 10 classes since we closed, and I don’t think anybody has felt unsafe,” Ms. Saidman Yee said.